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24 September 2014
Wars and Conflict - 1916 Rising

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Sir Roger Casement and the German connection Hear audio clips Audio Clips
Image of Sir Roger Casement and John Devoy

Sir Roger Casement (left) and Clan na Gael leader John Devoy in America, 1914 ©

Traditionally, Irish revolutionary nationalists have looked to England’s enemies for aid. So when a number of them met in Dublin on 9th September 1914 to discuss the circumstances arising from the outbreak of war, they agreed to appeal to Germany for its support in an insurrection. Clan na Gael, a republican organisation of Irish-Americans in the United States, was to provide the rebels with their main channel of communication with Germany. Already on 24th August 1914 its leader, John Devoy, had met the German ambassador in New York, stressed to him the opportunities for an Irish rising and requested arms and military personnel for this purpose.

Roger Casement was the central figure in developing the rebels` relations with Germany. He had been born in Sandycove, near Dublin, in 1864, the son of a British army officer, and for 20 years had served in the British consular service. He had then gained an international reputation for exposing European colonial exploitation of native peoples in Africa and South America. He had meanwhile become increasingly absorbed in militant Irish nationalist politics and attracted by the potential of an Irish-German alliance as a means of securing full Irish independence. He was in the US when the war began and at once submitted a plan to German officials there, outlining how Britain’s power could be broken by exploiting unrest in its vulnerable possessions, especially Ireland. The Berlin government suggested that he travel to Germany for negotiations.

On first arrival, Casement met with some success. On 20th November 1914, the German government declared its support for Irish independence, and soon after agreed to him raising an Irish Brigade from among Irish prisoners captured on the western front; its members were to be transported to Ireland to help in the fight for freedom. However, despite his efforts, recruitment to it was poor. Most of the prisoners were politically moderate and regarded Casement as a traitor.

German government hesitation ended when it received confirmation in mid-February 1916 that the date for an Irish rising had been set for the coming Easter. It agreed to ship 25,000 captured Russian rifles and one million rounds, hoping thereby to divert some British troops from the western front. The consignment was despatched aboard the ‘Aud’ on 9th April. Casement considered its size to be wholly inadequate, and that any rising was therefore doomed. He persuaded the German authorities to transport him to Ireland by submarine. His purpose was ostensibly to rendezvous with the ‘Aud’ and supervise the landing of the arms. His actual intention was to prevent an insurrection.

Image of Casement's 'Irish Brigade' in German prisoner of war camp

Sir Roger Casement's 'Irish Brigade' drawn from prisoners-of-war in Germany, 1915 ©

The whole enterprise ended in fiasco. Casement was arrested on 21st April, hours after landing on the Kerry coast. The Royal Navy captured the arms ship on the same day. Owing to navigational error, it failed to appear at its agreed rendezvous point. Due to inept planning by the rebel leadership, local volunteers had not been expecting it to arrive when it did. In any case, British intelligence had intercepted messages between the insurrectionists and the German Embassy in New York and was anticipating its arrival. Fearing leaks, full knowledge of such sensitive information was not communicated to the authorities in Dublin, who remained in ignorance of the plans for a rising.

The rebels’ failure to receive the arms had a major impact on the Rising. Had they arrived safely, MacNeill would probably have supported the outbreak, and its scale, especially in the provinces, would have been infinitely greater.

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Image of Professor Keith Jeffery Keith Jeffery, Professor of Modern History, University of Ulster at Jordanstown
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Image of Dr. Brian Barton Dr. Brian Barton, Historian, Open University
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